At first, Gary Oldman seemed to be looking for any reason not to play Winston Churchill in the new film "Darkest Hour."
The film, directed by Joe Wright and opening Wednesday, recounts the early weeks of World War II when Britain was on the brink of defeat and the leader rallied his country to fight on alone against the Nazis.
"I told my wife I was too tall to play Churchill. He was 5'6" and I was 5'10," recounts Oldman. "And she said, 'No, you're not' and measured me."
"Turned out, I was 5'8," the actor says with a laugh. "So I lost two inches." That wasn't the only problem: Oldman is rail-thin, compared to the rotund Churchill.
So when he finally took the role, he insisted on makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), whom the actor describes as like Picasso in his abilities.
Using prosthetics, make-up and hair, the transformation of Oldman into Churchill is remarkable, and the actor is giving a lot of credit to Tsuji.
"There's a Zen-like quality of just sitting in the chair as it is applied," he says. "After about two hours and 50 minutes, you start to see the spirit of the man looking back at you, and I found myself beginning to grumble a little bit and start trying him on."
But even four hours of make-up every morning doesn't make a performance.
"Gary is about the only actor I could think of that I would be really excited to see play Winston Churchill," says Wright. "There might be others that would be interesting, but Gary had the manic intensity of the Churchill that I envisioned. The exterior stuff you can fake, but the interior stuff you can't."
Indeed, Oldman is a heavy favorite to pick up his second best actor Oscar nomination for his role in "Darkest Hour" following his 2012 nod for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
Oldman says that when he began exploring the idea of playing Churchill he didn't know if he was remembering the real British leader or if his memory had been influenced by all the film versions, including Albert Finney's portrait in 2002's "The Gathering Storm."
"He been represented often as a man in a bad mood, shuffling around with his whiskey and cigar," says Oldman, who watched archival footage and listen to speeches of Churchill.
"What I gleaned from this footage was this energy. You can see this brain moving 500 miles an hour," Oldman says. "He looked like a baby. He had a round cherubic face with a real sparkle in his eye. He was a man on a mission."
Churchill came to power after then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated a peace with Hitler that was swiftly broken as Nazi armies swept across Europe, pinning down more than 300,000 British soldiers at Dunkirk.
When Chamberlain submitted his resignation, Churchill -- who had been raising warnings about Hitler for a decade -- became the reluctant choice to lead a teetering nation.
Many still wanted to sue for peace, haunted by the horrific bloodletting in World War I. Churchill, himself, had been responsible for planning the disastrous battle at Gallipoli and carried that burden. "I don't think he ever forgave himself," says Oldman.
What both the actor and Wright wanted to do was see the Churchill behind the mask.
"The problem with Churchill is the fact that he is lionized today," says Wright. "His statue stands on a plinth overlooking Parliament Square looking totally unapproachable. We wanted to bring him off the plinth and meet him."
What was so remarkable about Churchill at the time was that he delivered three of the most iconic speeches in the history of the English language, all written in 28 days. (The British leader would win the Nobel Prize for literature.)
"If we fail," Churchill famously told the House of Commons when urging the fight against the Nazis, "then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age."
"Churchill knew the power of the word, and the short Anglo-Saxon words, in particular," note Oldman. "It wasn't purple prose for the hell of it."
Both Oldman and Wright had real reminders of WWII when they were growing up in England. So the war for them wasn't some dim history lesson.
Wright, 46, recalls playing in old bomb craters as a kid.
"I remember going to school and there would be houses still missing," says Oldman, 58, whose father served in the British Navy in the war. "So you still saw the devastation of [Nazi bombing campaign] the Blitz."
Had Churchill capitulated, as many people wanted, the world would be a vastly different place. Britain stood alone, the United States not yet enterting the fray. So the period recounted in "Darkest Hour" is indeed, as Churchill predicted in that same speech, Britain's "finest hour."
Of course, Churchill isn't the only real person Oldman has portrayed on screen. His first lead role in a film was the punk rock icon Sid Vicious in "Sid & Nancy." He would later play assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's "JFK."
He's been known in recent years as Sirius Black in the "Harry Potter" series and Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy. He mentions that he loved working with Tony Scott on "True Romance" and Ridley Scott on "Hannibal."
"It was never my bucket list to play Dracula, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to work with Francis Ford Coppola," he says of another memorable role.
For a while, Oldman was being cast as villains in big-budget films whenever someone was looking for a topnotch British actor to add acting heft to the roles.
"Tinker Tailor," and now "Darkest Hour," are reminders of Oldman's powerful screen presence. He's hoping to revive "Tinker's" George Smiley again in a possible adaptation of John le Carre's "Smiley's People."
"I'm not saying I wouldn't play a villain again, but by God they'd have to pay me well," he says with a chuckle. ___
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